Where do we come from? Who we are? Where do we go? by Paul Gauguin from 1897 is one of the most exotic paintings of post impressionist art. And it is kept today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The subject of the work
A tropical paradise with numerous characters, all in different positions. Guauguin’s work is set in Tahiti, the largest of the French Polynesian islands in the Pacific Ocean. Here Gauguin lived for almost ten years. And many of his works were inspired by these exotic landscapes.
The bodies in the work as in others of the same genre are solid and sensual and the colors very intense and bright. Partly inspired by these distant and partly imaginary places.
Like other Gauguin paintings, this one also tells a story: the cycle of life. And you can already guess it from the title composed of some of the most important existential questions of all time.
The work must be read from right to left and the figures each represent a different stage of life. The cycle begins in the lower right with a sleeping child and ends on the left with an elderly woman accompanied by a bird.
The protagonists of Gauguin’s works
Gauguin reuses several figures from his past compositions in this work. For Gauguin this is his greatest masterpiece and it should have also been his last, so much so that he attempts suicide shortly after making it. The totem of the Tahitian deity is found in other works. And also the figure of the young woman next to the old woman on the left will also be present in Vairumati of the same year, kept at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The use of color in Gauguin’s work
Where do we come from? Who we are? Where do we go? by Gauguin is one of the most significant works of the artist also and above all for the use of color. The colors are saturated and the outlines of the figures dark and linear creating a flat and almost abstract composition.
A composition very influenced by Japanese painting, as for many other artists of the period for example Van Gogh or Mary Cassatt.
The contrast and combination of colors in this as in other works by Gauguin is not at all casual. The artist uses close greens and blues for nature to contrast with the golden yellow of the bodies. In fact, color not only had a sensual and decorative function, but was also used to suggest and express emotions.
Gauguin considered this painting, rich in symbolism and mythological references, the culmination of his work. He demonstrates the radical use of color and form that made him so influential, clearing the way for expressionists and abstract art.
The details of the work
child The child on the right represents the starting point of the representation, the first stage of the life cycle. In fact, just like in the conventional oriental reading, Gauguin decides to represent his story from right to left. The child is surrounded by a group of three women and perfectly represented from the point of view of the conventional perspective.
The Tathian landscape
And always on the right in the background Gauguin represents with a contrast of blue and green with yellow, the landscape of Tahiti. A natural landscape made of branches and trees with non-square curved shapes. A landscape that gives a sense of serenity and harmony to the whole composition.
The woman from behind who listens
At the center of the work two figures are exalted. One of these is a woman seated from behind who seems to put her hand in her hair as she listens intently. She draws our attention because she is sitting from behind and her back is illuminated by the light colored light that Gauguin has chosen to apply on his canvas to represent his skin.
The young man who picks up fruit
In the almost exact center of the work, a young man stands up to pick some fruit and fills the entire composition up. It could be a symbol within the life cycle of the pleasures of youth. it is at the center because it represents the central moment of our life, the most luxuriant and rich in fruit. Like the other figures, this one too has black outlines and an intense golden yellow skin color that contrasts with the blue / green background of the scene.
The Girl with the Fruit
At the bottom to her left sitting and thoughtful is another girl holding one of the fruit in her hand. She is eating a mango and is surrounded by two white cats. It is probably the protagonist of the second part of the work that is identified with the second question under the title “Who are we?”. In fact, the girl seems concentrated and thoughtful, and even the colors of her figure are lighter and in some parts closer to the brown and not the yellow of the young man standing on her right.
Sculpture of the deity
The presence of sculptures and deities of Tahiti in the works of Gauguin of this period is very widespread. An example is the work Mata Mua which I told you about on the canal in the tour together with the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.
The divinity represented in this case, however, is different and present only in another work by Gauguin in the Day of God of 1894. It is the divinity of the otherworldly world which was therefore carved and painted blue. Gauguin during his time in Tahiti is shocked by the destruction of native sacred art by Christian missionaries and for this reason he often inserts local divine figures in his works.
The old woman and the bird
Sitting at the far left of the work to conclude the cycle is an elderly woman with darker skin. Near her a beautiful and sensual young woman. The elderly woman is squatting almost as if she were coming out of the opera. He is perhaps waiting for the end of his life. And next to her a white bird to symbolize that moment unknown to all of us of the passage from life to death.
Inscription of the title in the work
The title of the work Where do we come from? Who we are? Where do we go? by Gauguin came to us thanks to the inscription in the same painting. In the upper left corner in French we can read these three questions written by Gauguin. in the last years of his life Gauguin gives question-formed titles to many of his works. This is perhaps because he wanted to emphasize the importance of asking oneself certain questions on an existential level during one’s life.
The technique of realization
At the beginning of his career Gauguin painted with quick and visible brushstrokes, in full impressionist style. but at a certain point in his life he detaches himself from this style and for various reasons he also begins to create works in a completely different technical style. Use thick paint to keep the colors from mixing with each other and create black lines around the outlines of the figures.
Economic difficulties also force him to use less paint or thinner states. While the black lines that separate the color areas tend to make the shapes more abstract. In this way he creates areas of flat color with little three-dimensional perspective of the figures. A conscious choice that will greatly influence Expressionist art later on.
In Where do we come from? Who we are? Where do we go? of Gauguin all this applies. The work is characterized by the combination of colors and strong lines. Blue and green contrast with yellow and browns. Each color tells a story and gives a different emotion.
Art is either plagiarism or revolution
Paul Gauguin. The story of the artist
Gauguin has created his own unique and personal style, reacting to impressionism and working with color as a form of expression of emotions. His life was by no means conventional, just like his works.
He was born in Paris in 1848 but spent part of his life as a child in Peru, his mother’s country of origin.
He then becomes a very successful stockbroker and only paints in his spare time. Become an admirer of the Impressionists and buy friends’ paintings and start exhibiting with them.
In 1883 he decides to paint full time but cannot afford the costs of the family and earn a living. He then separated from his wife and 5 children and moved to Brittany, a north-western region of France. Here he creates some of his most famous works, which completely move away from the Impressionist style.
He then moved to Panama and the island of Martinique. But he returns to France where he moves for a short time to Arles with his friend Van Gogh. Here, however, he cannot stay long as he is used to traveling and above all he does not get along with Van Gogh in their artistic discussions.
So he decides in 1891 to leave for Tahiti, which is a French colony. Here he lives in great poverty and falls ill with syphilis, but he also creates some of his most interesting works ever. And where do we come from? Who we are? Where do we go? it is just one of them. He died in 1903 on the Marquesas Islands, also in French Polynesia.
Cover: Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? Who we are? Where are we going ?, 1897, oil on canvas, Museum of fine arts in Boston.